HERZLIYA, Israel — Israel is working with Lockheed Martin and the F-35 Joint Program Office to maximize autonomy of its planned stealth fighter force, including its own command, control, communications and computing (C4) system, indigenous weaponry and the ability to perform heavy maintenance in country rather than at predetermined regional overhaul facilities.
Once the first F-35Is arrive here in December, state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) will begin installing a tailor-made C4 system on top of the central avionics embedded in the joint strike fighter.
"It's open architecture, which sits on the F-35's central system, much like an application on your iPhone. So it doesn't change anything in the aircraft itself, but it gives the Israel Air Force (IAF) the most advanced and adaptable processing capabilities with relative independence of the aircraft manufacturer," said Benni Cohen, general manager of IAI's Lahav Division.
In an interview Monday, Cohen said IAI is already producing the C4 system for installation in the first planes due here in December. "It introduces a new level of freedom for the IAF, as it paves the way for additional advanced capabilities to be embedded in the F-35I in the future," he said.
As for weaponry, the Israel Air Force and state-owned Rafael Advanced Systems Ltd. have been working with Lockheed Martin to adapt the Israeli Spice 1000 electro-optic standoff precision strike system for internal carriage on the F-35.
"We're still in the developmental process to make sure the weapon fits the airplane and the airplane fits the weapon," said Mike Howe, Lockheed's F-35 director of business development for Israel.
Similarly, Lockheed Martin is engaged with Cyclone Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of Elbit Systems, on external fuel tanks to augment range beyond the 18,500 pounds of fuel carried internally by the F-35. At a later phase, Israeli defense and industry sources say they hope to develop with Lockheed Martin — and with the consent of JSF partner nations — conformal fuel tanks to significantly extend the range while in stealth mode.
As for maintaining, repairing and overhauling airframes and engines of Israel's planned F-35 force, Air Force officers expect a formal exemption from the Pentagon's Joint Program Office (JPO) to perform work in country, rather than at predetermined Lockheed Martin-established logistics centers.
Brig. Gen. Tal Kalman, chief of staff of the Israel Air Force, speaks Sunday at a conference hosted by Israel Defense and the Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies.
Photo Credit: Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies
Brig. Gen. Tal Kalman, IAF chief of staff, told an audience in Tel Aviv that Israel's "unique requirements" demand independence in maintaining the stealth fighters. Speaking on Sunday at a conference of Israel Defense and the Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies, Kalman said the IAF is going for a "phased and coordinated process" to establish an F-35 logistics center at squadron headquarters at Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel.
"The program was built under a certain concept and the IAF wants to maximize its independence in maintaining these planes," Kalman said.
In an earlier interview, an IAF program official said the service expected to have full access to Lockheed Martin's Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), a worldwide sustainment network that gives operators the ability to plan, maintain and support the aircraft through their projected 55-year lifespan.
But in wartime, when Israeli airports and seaports may be compromised due to missile strikes, the IAF wants an indigenous capability to keep its F-35s operational.
"The ingenious, automated ALIS system that Lockheed Martin has built will be very efficient and cost-effective, but the only downfall is that it was built for countries that don't have missiles falling on them," an IAF program officer told Defense News.
The issue, however, is not yet fully resolved.
Lockheed executives noted that heavy maintenance must be performed under strict security, with program-mandated oversight measures. "When you tear an airplane down, you expose its magic. So that type of work was intended to be performed in designated places," a Lockheed executive told Defense News.
In an interview Monday, Jack Crisler, Lockheed Martin vice president for F-35 business development and strategic integration, said the JPO and partner nations "deliberately went through a selection process to identify maintenance repair and overhaul facilities in North America, in Europe and in Asia for the airframe and the engines with the expectation that that's where you would go for depot-level capabilities."
But that said, "We recognized that Israel is also going to have sovereign sustainability requirements. They want to be able to do as much maintenance of the aircraft and engines as they can. … So we and the Joint Program Office are working through that now to see how this will be done."
Meanwhile, Lockheed executives here said IAF logisticians are training at an F-35 logistics center at the US Air Force's Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and that the IAF is about to send its first cadre of fighter pilots to train at the Air Force's Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.
In his Sunday conference address, Kalman, the IAF chief of staff, said unique IAF requirements and the high operational tempo projected for the stealth fighters could provide opportunities for Israel to influence the F-35 program writ large.
"I'm sure this aircraft will bring excellent capabilities and there are opportunities for the IAF to influence the project," Kalman said.
"From my knowledge of the Middle East, I'm sure this aircraft will accrue very vast operational experience very quickly here. The lessons and the understandings from our operational activities will be adapted in the developmental process of the project," he said.
Israel has signed on for 33 of the 75 aircraft approved by Washington; a first batch of 19 in 2010 and another 14 in February. A follow-on order for another 17 planes is expected once Israel and the US conclude a new 10-year aid package, sources here say.
Israel is on track to declare an initial operational capability (IOC) of its F-35 force at the end of 2017, Kalman said.
"We're building a plan that within a year of those planes touching down here, we'll build up to IOC. They'll be the first outside the US to be operational. This is a huge privilege and responsibility. The year building up to this will be very intensive, and we are prepared."
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.